Tiger’s Back At Bay Hill

Winning Arnold Palmer’s tournament in March seemed like a rite of spring during Tiger Woods’ PGA Tour heyday. An 8-time champion, Tiger tied Sam Snead for the most wins at any tournament in Tour history. Snead won in Greensboro eight times as well.

But even with that kind of success and familiarity, Tiger spend part of the late morning surveying the Bay Hill course by golf cart before spending some time on the putting green gauging the speed of the greens on Tuesday.

“It should be a fun week,” Woods said anticipating good weather for the tournament starting Thursday. “I used to live here (he moved to Jupiter Island), my kids were born here in Orlando, I know a lot of people here and I’ve won here.”

In Tampa, Tiger’s appearance and surge up the leaderboard through the weekend drove the Valspar Championship to record levels in attendance and television ratings. With Tiger in the field and in contention there were four times the number of people in the gallery and watching on NBC as compared to last year.

Known as the “Tiger effect,” just Woods’ presence creates a buzz around any tournament he plays. Bay Hill is already electric. Masters tickets are a hot item. And although it’s not until May, The Players is anticipating a jump in attendance with Tiger in the field.

“A sellout is tough because we have so much space here,” said The Players Executive Director Jared Rice this week. “But this being the fifth anniversary of Tiger’s last win here and what he’s done for golf and the kind player he is, you can’t help but be excited at the possibility he’ll be back.”

On the PGA Tour players don’t have to commit to a tournament until the Friday before, and that’s typically been Tiger’s routine. But if he’s healthy, he’ll be at The Players.

“Hanging around on the range just isn’t possible anymore,” Woods said of his practice routine. “I get my work done and get out of there. Lingering for three or four hours I just don’t do. Some of that is just being an older athlete.”

Part of the misconception of his injury was that he couldn’t swing a club. Woods said that wasn’t it at all. It was more about bending over to hold the putter or a wedge that caused his back the most pain.

“I’ve finally at a point where I can let my hands tell me what to do. My back is healthy enough to trust it and let my hands play,” Tiger explained. “I’ve gone back to a lot of the things I did with my Dad.”

Finishing one shot back last week in Tampa, Woods said he could tell he’s getting sharper in competition, able to hit shots he sees in his mind. A fade or a draw, his “stinger” or a bombing driver, Tiger knows he’ll need all of those shots to win on the Tour with today’s level of competition.

“Paul (Casey, the winner) just laid it to us,” Tiger said of being in the mix on Sunday. “I knew I’d have to play well because these young guys can play. They’ve done well and it’s no surprise.”

You could tell that playing at Bay Hill, Arnold’s tournament is special to Tiger and he’ll miss seeing him on the golf course. He talked about the times he’d played here with Palmer as a kid and as a professional in “The Shootout” 9 (the daily noon game at Bay Hill) and the times they shared on the green when he won and in the locker room afterwards.

“I can’t make that thing he did with hitching his pants on the side look cool,” Woods said when asked if he’s tried to emulate Palmer in any way.

In a bit of a surprise, Woods was named the American captain of the 2019 Presidents Cup team. He’s been an assistant on both the Presidents Cup and the Ryder Cup but still only 42 years old; Woods expects to be a “playing captain” and not having to use one of his at-large picks to put himself on the team.

“Have you thought about being a ‘playing captain?” was the first question of the presser.

“I have,” Woods said immediately with a smile to raucous laughter among the media.